Coast Guard crews work year-round to ensure they are ready to support their community in the aftermath of disaster. In keeping with the service’s proud tradition of preserving life, the Coast Guard has plans in place to protect communities from manmade or natural disasters and one of the most important elements of these plans is communication.
When disaster hits, communication is essential among first responders to coordinate rescue and recovery efforts. Traditionally, the Coast Guard has utilized radios, emails, telephones and basic computer systems to communicate, store, and share information.
While the Coast Guard will always rely on traditional telecommunications such as radios, emails and telephones, it also has a powerful tool to coordinate response efforts with federal, state local and private sector partners – the Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Security Information Network.
Known as HSIN, this innovative network is a secure system providing real-time collaboration tools, including a virtual meeting space, instant messaging and document sharing. In short, this network allows the Coast Guard to share information with other agencies instantly, regardless of their location, to communicate, collaborate and coordinate.
This tool is invaluable for units involved in hurricane response efforts, including law enforcement, emergency management and humanitarian agencies.
“HSIN allows government agencies at all levels to directly collaborate and share information with others including the private sector like energy companies and private rail while maintaining proper information security,” said Lt. Joel Kurucar of Coast Guard Sector New Orleans, who has worked to incorporate HSIN into Coast Guard operations. “During event and incident responses, information from responders is passed through operational command centers. While those are still critical to response efforts, HSIN cuts out the ‘middle man’ and allows information from the source to be shared with all responders faster and more effectively than ever before.”
The network has been used in most hurricane response efforts in the Southeast since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. When Hurricane Katrina made landfall, New Orleans’ 911 system was knocked offline and calls were re-routed to Baton Rouge, La. HSIN was used to relay information from thousands of emergency calls to first responders in New Orleans, resulting in lives saved.
But responders are constantly improving their capabilities. For the first time this year, live video feed was shared through HSIN during the Super Bowl to assist with surveillance efforts.
“HSIN is able to fill in the gaps when it comes to emergency response and provides the flexibility to modify tools used for response efforts,” said Kurucar. “We were able to leverage the tools available in HSIN to meet the needs of vastly different responses including oil spills, marine casualties, hurricane responses and mid-to-large planned events. Each response or event is different and the ability to adjust the information sharing tools available to meet mission demand is critical to success.”
This year, the Coast Guard plans to coordinate response efforts not only online, but also on the go with the roll out of a Coast Guard-developed mobile interface.
The mobile interface will allow information to flow through HSIN from almost any location. This means more real-time information, even for those out in the field responding.
The value of the mobile interface was seen firsthand during this year’s Super Bowl, where more than 500 first responders were able to communicate directly with seven operations centers, drastically increasing transition speeds, accuracy of data and security.
“The HSIN mobile interface played a prominent role in deconflicting reports and speeding the response to the power outage during the Super Bowl,” said Kurucar. “As soon as the power outage took place, City of New Orleans officials were posting updates on HSIN, and first responders in the field were able to check these updates on their mobile devices allowing them to efficiently concentrate their efforts in the field and reduce calls to the city’s operations center who was handling the incident.”
Quick communication is key in response efforts – from posting information about evacuation shelters and routes to requesting assistance from neighboring states or counties to sharing on-the-ground information about search and rescue efforts.
Preparing U.S. ports and cities for disaster is a year-round effort that often goes unnoticed. In the face of disaster, however, the plans developed by local, state and federal agencies will save lives. No one knows what this year’s hurricane season will be like, but with tools like the Homeland Security Information Network the Coast Guard remains ready to respond.